Three types of allusion in Julian Barnes’ novel, ‘The Sense of an Ending’: Part 3 – Kermode and apocalytpics

In this final part of my discussion (see part 1 and part 2) of allusion in Julian Barnes’ novel The Sense of an Ending, I turn to the influential 1967 work of literary criticism by Frank Kermode that shares its name.

Here, we find what I call a ‘resonant’ form of allusion because it invites consideration between the novel and another work entire. Despite this, apart from the highly significant and deliberate identical titling of the novel, shares little or no direct reference. Rather, we’re asked to look for perhaps more elliptical but no less telling themes, patterns and interest in both novel and critical text. Indeed, I find – in my cursory reading – such connections between texts that it could easily justify a more sophisticated analysis that I give in this intentionally short(ish) blog post.

In the broadest sense, Kermode’s The Sense of an Ending attempts to make sense of time in fiction. Unlike those who start such an enterprise by considering origins or beginnings, Kermode’s work is eschatological: that is, it is concerned with end times. Kermode seeks to understand the passing of time in fiction by suggesting that the ‘apocalyptic’ stories present in religious texts, for example, provide a framework – a patterning of time in the long perspectives of history – which makes possible the imagining of a beginning and a middle in fiction.

Time as lived is messy; we never know the world’s end, we only know our own in death (that is, arguably, without experiencing it). Those who imagined the apocalypse, the end of times (and we are thinking of writers of early religious texts especially) needed to impose a sense of ending to fulfil their narrative obligations as a morality tale. Only the ending of a morality tale gives the writer the opportunity to resolve and close meaning and effect, to teach a lesson. But, as we are aware even now, mankind’s prediction of an apocalypse is always false. Like those with vision of the apocalypse, fiction writers, too, are forced to impose a limit on time. As Richard Webster writes in his excellent account of Kermode’s work:

[…] no sophisticated fiction fails to make use of ‘peripeteia’ (a sudden change in the movement of the plot). Since ‘peripeteia’ is, by definition, something we do not expect, in assimilating it we are ‘enacting that readjustment of expectations which is so notable a feature of naive apocalyptic’ (p. 18).

This is highly significant for our reading of Barnes’ novel. The final sequences, in which the we are confronted with difficult plot points, such as why Veronica’s mother left the bequest to Tony and what Veronica meant when she said ‘blood money’ could be said to be examples of ‘peripeteia’, couched as they are in a kind of thriller plot, where all is revealed in the final moments of the novel.

Barnes, following Kermode, is therefore exploring formal, stylistic ways of encouraging us to adjust our expectations as to the influences and path of time. Our expectations are thwarted and as such, more closely reflect both the lives lived in the novel and our own lives. This is not to say that our lives will have an plot twist, a precise moment around which its meaning is resolved or suggested. Rather, that our lives are not lived as simply as a series of discrete episodes within a normative structure of beginning, middle and end. It is not jus the themes and plot which explores that; but the plot twist, the unexpected moment when we learn that things are not as they seem; the story’s ‘peripeteia’.

What’s more, the notion that a story makes sense in relation to how a life is ended has a resonance with the both the effect Adrian’s death had on Antony, and the ways in which Antony considers the success of his life and that of others as he learns more about Adrian’s circumstances.

Looking from a broader perspective, the idea of time as being part of the subject of a novel is certainly one that chimes with Barnes’ work. But it’s a sophisticated argument, as suggested in Kermode’s assertion that time – that moment between the tick and tock of the clock – is disorganised and chaotic:

The clock’s ‘tick-tock’ I take to be a model of what we call a plot, an organisation which humanises time by giving it a form; and the interval between ‘tock’ and ‘tick’ represents purely successive, disorganised time of the sort we need to humanise. (p. 45).

The role of fiction in general is to impose order on the chaos, to suggest a patterning of cause and effect between one moment and the next that doesn’t actually exist in time’s ‘purest’ sense. This works, according to Kermode, in all of fiction: but I think we can take Kermode’s interest in time, and the significance of the end-times as (at least in my cursory reading) as having some sense of connection with the notion that lives are made meaningful in that they will in personal death; and, more specifically, the lives of Antony and Veronica are coloured by the suicide of Adrian.

Returning to Philip Larkin, the subject of the reference to the poet in part 2 of my study, we find the discord between the long perspectives of our lives – the distant past, even the distant future, and beyond that future, incredibly difficult to understand and cope with:

Truly, though our element is time,
We are not suited to the long perspectives
Open at each instant of our lives.
They link us to our losses: worse,
They show us what we have as it once was,
Blindingly undiminished, just as though
By acting differently, we could have kept it so.

Philip Larkin, ‘Reference back’

Like the ‘naive apocalyptics’ who sought to impose order through the endtimes, our difficulty with time lies partly in that we cannot know its end. Except that Adrian did by taking his own life when so young, obliterating the promise of a future and in doing so hoping to make sense of time and his life, just as the apocalyptics would have it.


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